We all get that feeling every now and again, that moment late a night when the house is quiet (too quiet, your thoughts whisper) and you catch something out of the corner of your eye; a rapid flickering, and then it’s gone.
Depending on where your mind’s at, that’s when you either say it’s time for bed, because you’re so tired that you’re starting to see things; or you say holy crap, I just saw something.
It was definitely a thing of some sort.
Was it a ghost?
A spirit? An evil demon? Maybe a more benign presence, that cool chill that blows down your back when you’re sitting alone.
But something was there, you’re sure of it, so you sit vigilant (or fearful) awaiting its return.
And that, my friends is the basis of human existence; an overactive startle reflex that kept our ancestors alive long enough to reproduce (and eventually spawn us). It’s in our genes.
Humans have evolved to be fearful, it’s what keeps us alive. But what about in modern times, when our dangers don’t come with heavy clubs or drooling fangs, but tamer threats, like traffic congestion and payment past due notices?
We experience the same stress response – good ol’ fight or flight. Hormone levels (featuring adrenaline and cortisol) surge, giving your body the energy to flee; digestion shuts down to reroute blood supplies to more necessary parts (i.e. hands and feet) and you might notice a collapsing of thought – a sort of tunnel vision as it were. This is your brain going on autopilot, there’s not much thinking going on as your cerebral cortex attends to more pressing matters – either fighting or getting the hell out of there.
Once you escape the threat (by either fighting or fleeing) blood hormone levels return to normal. For thousands of years, our threats have been short term, and relatively intense. War, animal attacks, that kind of thing.
We haven’t evolved to sit in rush hour traffic. This sort of chronic stress (that never goes away) is problematic because blood hormone levels never quite return to normal. Health problems like gastrointestinal illness and hypertension as well as good ol’ depression and anxiety are the result. We’re trapped in a permanent hypervigilance. There’s no escape or release.
Which brings me back to dark fiction and horror – it’s about release. It’s about creating those scary monsters of prehistoric times (perhaps now in different clothes, but a monster remains a monster) and letting them loose to scare the bejesus outta us.
It’s kinda fun. We know (in those superior brains of ours) that it’s all in fun – the monster is just a figment of our imagination, and when the scare’s over, we return to normal life.
But consider this – every culture around the world has their own boogey man, the thing that goes bump in the night. Our brave ancestors huddled beside their campfires well aware of the spirits who surrounded them; they were as real as the leaves on the trees, and a force to be reckoned with, or at least appeased.
Thousands of people for thousands of years must be right about something – perhaps there is something there. Perhaps you can see it, catch it out of the corner of your eye, or in the prickling sensation of dread when you have to go up the basement stairs and you are convinced, just for a second, of course, that something will reach its cold slimy hand around your ankle and never let go.
Or perhaps you’ve felt it, waking in the middle of the night with a shock and a terrible weight pressing down on your chest, and you know, that any exposed limb is a target for them.
We laugh, the intelligent humans we are, but we laugh in full daylight. In darkness we huddle beside our electric lights as pseudo-campfires, and tell ourselves there is nothing there, but, glancing over your shoulder, did that shadow move?
And should you check to make sure the front door’s locked, again?
We know, being superior creatures, full of thought and insight, that there was nothing there; but what about when your brain tells you otherwise?
That whisper you half heard, just floating by, scratchy straw-like hiss of words jumbled together. Or when the cat darts out of the shadows and leaps across the table, you might laugh, but then you might wonder why the cat is so scared.
When the voices inside your head are steering you wrong, who are you to trust?
And that, my friends is what makes horror and dark fantasy doubly scary – instead of an easy thrill and neurological rush of terror, perhaps our ancestors were right. We leave the movie theatres laughing nervously and check over our shoulders, because our brain is telling us the truth.
There really is something there.
Side note: My laptop froze while I was writing this (I think I was at the part about the bogey man and spirits surrounding us). My laptop freezing isn’t surprising, except this one’s brand new, and as it drew closer to midnight, the house fell quieter and a strange feeling crept in. The ceiling fan stuttered and hesitated in ways it never really does, and a cool draft shot down my neck. As I wrote, I’d catch flickering out of the corner of my eye, and turn only to see a shirt hanging up, swaying in the breeze. But, for a second, I was convinced there was a person nearby.
Because, my friends, I know there is something there.